Southern Hells: Redemption and Ridicule in Birdcloud's America
Meet the Nashville country-punk duo that is problematic with purpose.
Photo courtesy of Birdcloud
These are hypersensitive times in America, an era when the act of climbing out of bed requires a “trigger warning” while trolls, imbeciles, and lunatics of every imaginable creed smack their lips in lusty anticipation of an affront, some undercooked tweet or ill-chosen Instagram comment by which to crucify the next digital citizen who commits the cardinal sin of insensitivity in public. In a recent January broadside for New York magazine, Jonathan Chait charted the irrepressible creep of political correctness in American life: “At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach ‘trigger warnings’ to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.” After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when outrage over the murders dueled with meta-outrage over its victims’ alleged racial and religious insensitivities, the notion of “acceptable speech” began to feel too fraught a thing to comprehend, a queasy zero-sum game that ends poorly for all players.
It is squarely within this zone of cultural nausea that Birdcloud, the Nashville country-punk duo, make their music.
Birdcloud is Jasmin Kaset and Makenzie Green, a pair who met while attending Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, about an hour east of Nashville. Since forming five years ago, the band has become a beloved fixture of Nashville’s independent music scene, a richly incubatory community that, in just the past few years, has spawned artists as talented and diverse as Natalie Prass, Sturgill Simpson, Torres, Pujol, and Andrew Combs. Green and Kaset claim they never liked each other until a 2010 barbecue, where they bonded over their shared contempt for a mutual acquaintance. Improving in their now signature performative twangs, each played her guitar while making up lyrics to a song about the despised girl, a vocal pitch-and-catch that has since become the band’s hallmark.
“Someone at the barbecue asked, ‘What do you call that?’” Green says. “And the first thing that came out of my mouth was Birdcloud.”
A week later the duo were performing live for the first time, and within a year they were recording their eponymous first EP in the Compound, the studio owned by legendary country producer Kyle Lehning. Jordan Lehning—Kyle’s son, a longtime friend of Kaset, and an accomplished producer in his own right (Caitlin Rose’s The Stand-In, Andrew Combs’ All These Dreams)—recorded the duo.
“Jordan had us singing in two isolated booths separated by a window, so we could look at each other while we recorded and replicate our performance style in the studio,” Kaset says. “We didn’t want any production because it would have diluted our style.”
That style, wherein Green and Kaset face each other with a kind of comically deranged intensity while performing, is also a necessary commentary on the songs themselves, many of which would surely be classified as “macroaggressions” and “trauma triggers” by the palace guards of political correctness.
“When we began five years ago, we faced each other onstage to get into the music and to get each other off without concern for what the audience was thinking,” Kaset says. “It’s less about excluding other people than doing what it takes to become Birdcloud.”
“Indianer” is the lead track from the debut album, a song about a particular type of braggadocio familiar to anyone raised in the rural South: the brinkmanship among rednecks regarding Native American ancestry. Sung as a belligerent declamation from the redneck’s POV, the chorus leaps into your consciousness like a tic:
One eighth Apache, three fourths Cherokee
One eighth Mohawk, three quarters Choctow
One eighth Blackfoot, three fourths Red Sox,
I’m more Indianer than all of y’all
The mystery that animates Birdcloud’s best music is a dialectic of identity, a cruel compassion that allows Green and Kaset to inhabit the consciousness of the character who speaks while divorcing themselves from that character’s consequences. “Indianer” manages to stuff every dimwitted Native American stereotype into a span of two and a half minutes, but it does so without ever implicitly condoning or condemning the speaker, and in that sense the band’s songs are more like first-person Southern Gothic short stories told with acoustic guitars and earworm melodies. Anyone familiar with the fictional pyrotechnics of the late Mississippi author Barry Hannah—specifically the lecherous maniacs and emotionally maimed psychotics of his masterpiece Airships—will recognize this strain of storytelling. This idea is often lost on casual listeners, however, who continually bombard the comments section of the video’s YouTube page with accusations of racism, hate speech, and worse.
“Some Indian kids in North Dakota heard ‘Indianer’ and began sending us death threats,” Kaset says. “But the people in the South who worship Native American culture actually talk and act just like the asshole singing the song,” Green adds. “They actually think that to be a Native American is to ‘ride a buffalo to the casino,’ ‘eat popcorn from an elk horn,’ and ‘smoke a bowl around the totem pole.’ It’s totally insane, but these people exist.”
“Bandit” is another irresistible gem from the first EP, a boozy lullaby sung by a reckless woman to her dead dog:
And maybe if I’d bought you that expensive dog food
It may have just decreased your appetite
If I had not got drunk and knocked over the bottle
Of anti-freeze upon the drive
Oh then, Bandit, you might still be alive
Subverting the popular cliché that tries to reduce country songwriting to a single trope of self-pity, “Bandit” is the ingenious exception that proves the rule, a blubbering elegy with so much weirdly empathic depth and weight that it justifies the cliché’s existence. The song doesn’t mock the woman’s probable alcoholism and casual negligence, nor does it rationalize her pet’s wholly preventable death. What it does do, though, is give the loneliness of an anonymous woman a couple of absurd moments to strut and fret in your mind before disappearing once again into oblivion. Historically, this is what country music has always done best.
“Contemporary country music sucks so bad now because artists are trying to appeal to everybody, and the result is a bunch of BuzzFeed-style list songs or boring drinking songs or limp-dick kissing-a-girl's-ass love songs,” Kaset says. “They’re just trying to cover all their bases and please everyone and always remind you how country they are. It's garbage and it’s the main reason why it’s almost impossible to find a good story-song on country radio anymore.”
Yet because the Birdcloud aesthetic is not quite country and not quite punk, a temptation arises to find a genre vague enough to contain the music’s strangeness. Despite the laughs provided by the heartbreaking images and delusional lyrics in their songs, Green and Kaset bristle at the idea that what they’re doing is comedy.
“The last thing in the world either of us wants is to be seen as a comedy band, because, actually, I don’t really think the music is all that fucking funny anyway,” Green says. “Sure, life is fucked up and it’s funny to laugh at that sometimes, but our songs are grounded in the real experiences of real people.”
As a point of contrast, they cite the L.A.-duo Garfunkel and Oates as the epitome of what Birdcloud is not—a calculated and disingenuous act that screams “Look at how cute we are! Can you believe our music is so SHOCKING?!”
Garfunkel and Oates are probably best known for their 2013 novelty “The Loophole,” a song about the curious logic of Christian high school girls in America who, wanting to maintain their virginity in the eyes of Christ, opt for anal sex with their boyfriends—a “loophole” never explicitly forbidden in the Bible. The song is overproduced, soulless, and unfunny…and its video on YouTube has more than four million views. “The Loophole” is doubly odious when compared to Birdcloud’s 2011 cut “Saving Myself for Jesus,” a caustically brilliant piece of songcraft about the same theme, but performed with a hushed tenderness as an old-time Southern hymn of unspeakable devotion: “He died upon the cross, let me get my point across / My hymen belongs to Jesus.”
What Birdcloud has to this point lacked in mass popularity and market penetration, though, they’ve more than made up for with an obsessive and adoring fan base. A legitimate Birdcloud subculture has taken root in towns and cities across the country, with strangers rocking Birdcloud tattoos, creating fan art, and covering the band’s songs on YouTube.
“We get the most insane people as fans,” Green says. “They’re psycho fans, and we love them. A few tend to use our show as an excuse to lose all control, like, ‘Oh my God, Birdcloud’s coming to town, let’s do a bunch of coke!’ Some of them have expectations that we’re the same way, and they’re surprised when we’re not.”
The band tours the country in a silver 2003 Toyota Sienna minivan with just a couple of guitars, a mandolin, and a merch bag containing items like a beer koozie branded with their faces, a trucker hat that reads “I’m From Here,” and a T-shirt that glows in the dark. All of it (especially the minivan) brings to mind Sarah Palin’s campaign trail speechifying about “real Americans,” because in an odd sense this is precisely the demographic for whom Birdcloud’s music speaks, that sea of citizens across the republic who hate immigrants and vegetarians with equal relish, who crank up Sean Hannity while speeding down the highway in a rage, a tallboy Miller Lite perched between their thighs and a dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror, with nothing to look forward to but endless nights of domestic strife and the always lingering possibility of suicide. Real Americans with real problems in a land of no real alternatives.
Birdcloud is a featured act at SXSW this week, and last week Rolling Stone named them a must-see country act. The band is close to finishing the songs for their fourth EP, and they expect to release it at some point this summer.
“The Lord only knows what's in store for Birdcloud,” Green texts me in a (facetious?) audio message she records while driving the minivan to Austin. “We’re gonna see, ain’t we?”
Kirk Walker Graves is the author of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a book about Kanye West, and he's more Indianer than all of y'all. Follow him on Twitter.